Your work may not be original, but that’s not the point


For those who haven’t read the post about Ze Frank, go watch this video. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A terrible place between zero and one

I confess I watched this video with a strange mixture of excitement, amazement, and agony. Excitement, because his message was so compelling and his enthusiasm so contagious that I couldn’t help myself. Amazement, because that is how I feel when confronted with raw and unfamiliar creativity. And agony, because it’s things like this that make me question what I’m doing, because it appears to already have been done.

I want you to move from a place of wanting-but-not-taking-action to a place of accomplishment (or at least the attempt). I want you to shake off the enervation that the system pushes upon you. I want you to have enough drive to work on what you are passionate about. But could I state this in a more creative or profound way than the above video? Umm, well…

I want you to Start. I want you to go from average to awesome. Hey, that’s the title and premise of Jon Acuff’s latest book! Whoops…

Not written by me.
Not written by me.

These are people who at first blush seem smarter, more talented, more creative, and who are better put-together than me. I might as well stop.

Or maybe not.

Who’s afraid of Marcel Proust?

Did you know that Virginia Woolf almost ceased writing, in part because of her love of the writing of Marcel Proust? She had read Swann’s Way and apparently found it a perfect, unimprovable book: “What remains to be written after that?” She continued in a diary entry:

“Take up Proust after dinner and put him down. This is the worst time of all. … Nothing seems left to do. All is insipid and worthless.”

(Quotes are taken from Alain de Botton‘s excellent book How Proust Can Change Your Life. The book does not cite original sources, but I believe him.)

Now, I’m a huge fan of Proust. And while I have yet to read Virginia Woolf, she is extremely well regarded by pretty much everyone. Can you imagine if she had never picked up a writing implement? No Mrs. Dalloway, no A Room of One’s Own, and indirectly, no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Think of not only all of the artists who have been influenced by Ms. Woolf, but all of the people who have been influenced by people who were themselves influenced by her!

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So perhaps you are not original. Perhaps you think someone else has done what you wanted to do.

Fine. Because I don’t think it matters. The content of your work is almost never what makes your work original.

Five new love songs were written while you just read this

I think we can all agree that some of the songs that have been written over the years are love songs. And there some damn good ones out there. From “All I Have To Do Is Dream” to “In Your Eyes” and everything in between, this magic feeling has been accurately captured from pretty much all possible angles. So should we stop writing love songs? Hasn’t the genre been exhausted? Can’t we retire it like a jersey number on a sports team?

And yet, to use a single example, 2005 brought Death Cab For Cutie’s excellent “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” as moving a piece on love (and mortality) as there ever has been. This song didn’t exist before he had written it, and now it does, and the world is a better place for it.

You can easily find examples of this in every genre of music and every other type of art or business you can imagine. Everything has already been done, and yet people keep doing new original things.

I also think that true originality is kind of overrated too. Jackson Pollock was the original master of the paint splatter, and yet he still used a traditional canvas. How unoriginal! If he were truly original, he would have used a, well, um, I don’t know what really. (Paint droplets suspended in air? I’m not the artist here.) When you’re too original, you lack the context that tethers your work to anything else. Originality at the expense of the ability to compel.

It’s you

So if we’re not being original, then why are certain people remembered for their work? What makes them different?

Well, no one knows for sure, but I think it must be because of something innate to the artist that gets embedded into the work.

In that Ze Frank video: would it be as compelling without his bright eyes burning holes in your skull, or his impish half-smile, looking like it will almost break into a laugh at any moment? In that Death Cab song, would it have the same meaning without Ben Gibbard’s tenor voice, brimming with his life experiences?

Could it be that the work you do will be remembered and praised not because of the quality or originality of it, but because of the “you” that is contained in it? Indeed it could.

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Guess you better begin.

But enough about me. I won’t ask if you’ve ever felt like your work was unoriginal, because I think everyone feels that way. So instead, how have you gotten past that?

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